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Raising the Spotlight on Affordable Housing Despite research

Raising the Spotlight on Affordable Housing Despite research
illustrating the presence of an acute affordable housing crisis, the issue remains below the national radar, experts say
By Ronald Roach

To Dr. Victoria M. Basolo, a professor of urban planning at the University of California-Irvine, the desire to play a part in making sure all Americans have adequate housing motivated her to pursue an academic career in urban and regional planning. “In a country as wealthy as the U.S., every one should have access to adequate housing,” she says.

The work of Dr. Michael P. Johnson at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which focuses on improving the operations of public housing authorities, also springs from a motivation similar to that of Basolo. “My research explores how public housing authorities could better serve their clients, but there’s a larger issue of whether this society is willing to produce affordable quality housing for all Americans,” he notes.

It’s not surprising that among scholars who study housing in the United States, a deep-seated concern about housing conditions informs their work. For scholars who attained their doctoral training during the 1990s, such as Basolo and Johnson, their careers have coincided with what many see as the rise of one of the most acute affordable housing crises in the United States since the postwar period of the late 1940s.

Last month, a major coalition of housing advocacy groups issued a study reporting that the number of low- to moderate-income working families in the United States spending more than half their income on housing increased by 67 percent between 1997 and 2001. That put the total at more than four million families who are at least 20 percentage points above the recommended 30 percent threshold for household spending on housing.

While many of those households experienced affordable housing crunches in the nation’s most expensive markets, like Boston and San Francisco, the salaries of many other low- and middle-income families failed to keep up with increasing housing costs. This is a dilemma throughout the country, even with the booming economy in the late 1990s, according to the report.

“Our research underscores the need to act now to increase the current supply of affordable housing across the nation,” says Michael Pitchford, president of the National Housing Conference, a coalition of industry experts, advocates and academics.

In recent years, housing advocates have been pressing local and federal officials to take action to alleviate the affordable housing crisis. Although Congress has recently considered bills to create a national trust fund that would finance the construction of affordable housing units, housing advocates are dismayed because they feel that affordable housing ranks far too low an issue on the national agenda.

Earlier this year, the U.S. housing advocacy community had high hopes that a national commission recommending major policy changes to revitalize affordable housing production would stimulate a national debate on the issue. Championing “a new vision for the nation’s housing,” a bi-partisan commission created by Congress released its report in May after an extensive 17-month-long study, which had included public hearings held in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, New York and Washington.

Dubbed the Millennial Housing Commission (MHC), the 22-member group concluded that while Americans are among the best housed people on earth and that federal housing support has helped to produce a 67.8 percent national homeownership rate, “there’s simply not enough affordable housing.”

According to the report, “the inadequacy of supply increases dramatically as one moves down the ladder of family earnings. The challenge is most acute for rental housing in high-cost areas, and the most egregious problem is for the very poor.”

The MHC found that more than 28 million Americans now spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing; working a full-time job no longer guarantees access to decent housing; and the homeownership rate for Black and Hispanic Americans remains 27 percent below the national average.

Nevertheless, the MHC report has yet to spark much national discussion on affordable housing, according to experts. As housing advocates struggle to get the general public and federal policy-makers to pay attention to the national crisis in affordable housing, they are seeking out and supporting research that illustrates the depths of the affordable housing crisis. Housing researchers have noted that local housing advocacy groups and foundations are increasingly seeking their assistance in conducting affordable housing studies.

The Fannie Mae Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., gets mentioned by researchers as an entity that has aggressively attempted to direct housing policy discussions among academics toward policy-makers in the federal, state and local governments. Since 1989, Fannie Mae, which supports research and affordable housing programs, has published two notable academic journals, Housing Policy Debate and the Journal of Housing Research.

“We want to help the academic community get their ideas to the policy-makers,” says James Carr, senior vice president of innovation, research and communication technology at the Fannie Mae Foundation.

Doing Better Research

While it’s natural that academic researchers in social policy and social science fields want their research to inform public policy debates and decisions, they guard against their work being seen as “advocacy.”

“In social science, you can’t be an advocate in your research,” says Dr. Rachel Garshick Kleit, an assistant professor at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.

“I deem a topic important for research if it, one, addresses a public policy issue, and two, if it addresses a knowledge issue. In examining something, do I produce new knowledge? My research is based on finding a topic that allows me to meet both of those criteria,” says Kleit, who researches questions around the social benefits of housing.

Recently, Kleit has gotten research funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to examine whether low-income residents in a HOPE VI housing development are gaining social benefits by living in a mixed-income housing community in Seattle. In an effort to shift public housing developments from being entirely comprised of low-income residents, HUD’s HOPE VI program constructs communities whose residents have a range of incomes.

The basis of the research results from the notion that mixed-income housing will represent a step forward for low-income residents who are said to suffer from a lack of social and economic opportunities when they live in communities populated by mostly poor people.

“One of the questions we don’t answer to is the extent of interaction that the mixing of people from different income levels in communities produces,” Kleit says. “What are the benefits that will accrue to low-income residents in a mixed-income housing development,” she adds, noting that benefits can be defined as job-related advice, health and community affairs information.

There’s a great deal of speculation that “social mixing is going to create better opportunities” for low-income people in subsidized housing communities, according to Kleit. But virtually no social research has been conducted to confirm this idea, she says.

Carnegie Mellon’s Johnson says it’s critical that he prove himself to be a highly proficient researcher before his ideas and systems are ready for public consideration and use. “My primary goal is do better research,” says Johnson, who has worked with the Pittsburgh public housing authority on developing management systems to help improve their services.

Johnson, a professor of management science and urban affairs at Carnegie Mellon’s H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management, like Kleit, has obtained funding from HUD to support his research. A HUD Urban Scholar grant has enabled Johnson to begin development of a software and Internet-based program, known as Housing eCounselor, intended for families using Section 8 vouchers (see Techtalk, pg. 37).

As a youngster, Johnson grew up hearing frequent talk about HUD and public housing as a result of his mother holding jobs at HUD and community foundations. Attainment of degrees in mathematics, electrical engineering, and operations research has given Johnson a technical background that he brings to research on improving public housing authority operations.

UC-Irvine’s Basolo, who expresses deep concern about the lack of affordable housing, is completing a HUD-funded study to determine the effectiveness of HUD’s Section 8 voucher program in a southern California county. Given the history of HUD’s shift from building and maintaining public housing since the 1970s, the federal housing agency has relied increasingly on programs to subsidize low-income families to obtain rental housing in the private market.

Basolo, who has worked at the Irvine campus for nearly three years, has collected survey data on 1,200 families who use Section 8 vouchers in Orange County. The study evaluates how a voucher-based system works in a low density, suburban environment, which is in contrast to eastern and Midwestern, big city milieus. The idea of giving vouchers to families is tied to the notion that people with choice on where they can live will choose locations that place them closest to good schools and job opportunities, according to observers.

“If the voucher system has an ideal environment for implementation, it would be the low density areas you have in the West and the Southwest,” Basolo says.

Looking Outside the Box

Dr. Robert M. Lang heads up the Metropolitan Institute of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, a regional development research center just outside of Washington, D.C. A former official at the Fannie Mae Foundation, Lang says it’s inevitable that housing is getting short shrift in a time when the public is distracted by the war on terrorism and the soft economy.

Nevertheless, he offers that it’s crucial that the housing advocacy and research communities help the public and policy-makers see affordable housing as an issue that has impact on the well-being of entire regions and the nation. Too often, housing fails to resonate as a public issue because individuals don’t readily see the issue beyond the confines of their own personal circumstances, Lang explains.

“No one pays attention to these surveys because they paint a grim picture people already expect to hear,” he says. “You have to tell the people something they don’t know.”

Fannie Mae’s Carr says one of the challenges of making the affordable housing crisis an issue that resonates with the public is getting people to see that it’s not a “zero sum game.” As a zero sum game, people are strictly perceiving that if they do so something to increase affordable housing they are losing something in the process, like having to pay more taxes, according to Carr.

“We have to look at solutions that fall outside the box,” he adds.

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